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Beat the Needle

Saving Tookie Williams

by ERIC RUDER

THE STATE of California is racing to execute Stan Tookie Williams, its most famous death row prisoner. And in response, people from all walks of life–Hollywood stars, anti-death penalty activists, former gang members, educators and more–are now racing to save his life.

On October 24, a California court fast-tracked Stan’s execution after the U.S. Supreme Court refused his final appeal. He was given a December 13 execution date–ahead of two other death row prisoners whose last appeals had already been turned down.

Stan gained national prominence after his life story was portrayed in Redemption, a TV movie starring actor Jamie Foxx. But for years before Redemption, Stan’s anti-gang work had an enormous influence on youth across the U.S.

More than 30 years ago, Stan co-founded the Crips gang in Los Angeles. After he was framed for four murders and sentenced to death in 1981, he transformed himself behind bars, writing children’s books to discourage kids from joining gangs.

He has been nominated for five Nobel Prizes, and one of his books won two national honors. Earlier this year, he received a Presidential Call to Service Award from none other than George Bush.

The "Tookie Protocol for Peace: A Local Street Peace Initiative" has moved tens of thousands of youth and formed the basis for gang truces in several cities. Some 70,000 people have sent e-mails to the SaveTookie.org Web site to thank Stan for providing them with the inspiration and motivation to leave gang life behind.

"So many preachers, politicians and law enforcement officers talk about stopping gang violence, but they don’t have any experience of it,” Najee Ali, a former gang member-turned-community activist, told a reporter. "But when you have the founder of the most well-known gang in history, it speaks a lot.”

In recognition of the valuable work Stan continues to do from behind bars, both the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle have printed editorials calling on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to grant clemency.

To put even more pressure on Schwarzenegger, Stan’s supporters have called for a November 30 national day of action to hold press conferences, speakouts and rallies. But the November 30 actions are just one part of a multi-faceted campaign to save Stan.

On November 19, rapper Snoop Dogg will travel to San Quentin to meet with Stan, and then speak to people gathered outside for a "Save the Peacemaker" rally. On December 4 in San Francisco, actor Danny Glover will host a screening of Redemption to draw attention to the case.

And Jamie Foxx, whose birthday is December 13, has said that the only present he wants is clemency to stop the man he portrayed from being killed the same day. "We can’t let [this execution] happen," Foxx told a reporter at the premiere of his new film Jarhead. "We’ve got to do everything we can to get the word out. Do you know they’ve collected nearly 30,000 signatures so far?"

Stan’s efforts to encourage kids to steer clear of gangs are reason enough to grant him clemency, but there’s much more to this case. The racism of the death penalty and criminal justice system has marked Stan’s case from the very beginning.

At his trial, Stan was found guilty by an all-white jury after the prosecutor removed all prospective Black jurors from the jury pool–a practice he was warned against by judges on two prior occasions. In his closing argument, the prosecutor compared Stan to a Bengal tiger in the zoo, and described the Black neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles as his jungle "habitat."

Yet appellate court judges have dismissed Stan’s protests of this racism, claiming it amounted to "harmless error"–in other words, that it was improper and shouldn’t have happened, but didn’t alter the outcome of the trial.

Stan appeared in the sentencing phase of his trial in shackles–a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court has since ruled unconstitutional because it unfairly biases the jury against the defendant.

Stan has always maintained his innocence in the murders he was sent to death row for, and last week, his attorney filed a discovery motion that calls into question the only physical evidence linking Stan to the crime.

The motion requests the right to reexamine shotgun shells that, according to the sheriff’s testimony in Stan’s original trial, were fired from a shotgun belonging to Stan. In the motion, a ballistics expert maintains that the sheriff’s testimony is based on "junk science at best." The motion also asks for evidence that could prove whether other officers in Stan’s trial deliberately lied, and if a prosecution witness, fearing deportation, gave false testimony.

Of course, Stan’s case is just one of hundreds of California death row cases rife with racism, prosecutorial misconduct and shoddy evidence.

Last year, in recognition of the serious problems plaguing the state’s criminal justice system, legislators established the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice to figure out the extent to which innocent people have been convicted and even executed. But it wasn’t until June of this year that State Assemblyman Paul Koretz and a few other assembly members introduced legislation for a moratorium on executions while the commission carried out its work.

This legislation won’t be considered until January, giving Schwarzenegger yet another reason to grant clemency to Stan.

Schwarzenegger is a Republican, who was recently dealt a political blow by the defeat of several ballot measures he backed in a statewide special election. Pressure from activists can force Schwarzenegger to do the right thing–but only if we’re active on all fronts.

"We need to fight to allow Stan to live so that he can continue his work and prove his innocence," Barbara Becnel, a journalist and Stan’s longtime collaborator, told the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s annual convention in Chicago via speakerphone. "We need to expose the corruption in his case, and let the state, the nation and the world know that the death penalty in this country is not fairly administered.

"Blacks being kicked off the jury, the prosecutor using jungle language in his closing, saying that jurors could go to the zoo to see animals like Stan–that is not okay. Racism has been reduced to a ‘harmless error’–that’s what they say happened in Stan’s case and the cases of many, many people on death row. We need to stand up and say that we won’t allow racism to be dismissed as a harmless error.

"Show up and stand up today–for Stan and for all of us."

What you can do to help save Tookie

– Set up an information table about Stan’s case. Hand out fact sheets and collect signatures on petitions asking Schwarzenegger to grant clemency. Make cell phones available for people to call the governor’s office on the spot. Set up a laptop so that people can e-mail the governor right there and then. Schwarzenegger’s phone is 916-445-4633, and his e-mail address is governor@governor.ca.gov

– Hold a press conference with community organizers, campus groups and others involved in the fight for social justice.

– Organize a rally or picket in your city. Call a campus speakout to "save the peacemaker."

– Hold a screening of Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.

– Organize a teach-in on "The Power of Redemption: The Case of Stan Tookie Williams." Host a former death row prisoner to speak in your city or on your campus.

– Write a letter or story about Stan’s case for local or school newspapers, and contact local radio stations to do a segment on Stan.

– Run a signature ad in your school or community paper.

– Organize a spoken word event for Stan, a "Rock for Tookie" concert with local bands to raise funds for Stan’s defense, or a mock trial focusing on the injustices of the death penalty.

– Be creative. Come up with your own ideas to get the word out and build support.

For more information about the Save Tookie campaign or to download petitions and fact sheets, visit the Save Tookie and Campaign to End the Death Penalty Web sites. Be sure to send information about the activities you plan to Save Tookie Web site.